In Memoriam: Aurelie Sheehan
* The following essay is reprinted from The Florida Review, Vol. 22, No. 2, 1997, in memory of its author, Aurelie Sheehan, who died earlier this year. The essay is followed by reminiscences from two of the magazine’s editors.
The Orange-Fish Heart of the Avalanche
I had a date with loneliness. I’d honed loneliness in my New York studio apartment. I’d done it there in a kind of salty paroxysm of soup making and blue bathtub evenings and La Boheme and La Traviata listened to again and again until the tapes were worn thin and scratchy and my neighbors were considering aria-murder. I’d been lonely before—for instance, during the long shallow lake of my relationship with Sam. But in New York, after a splendid heartbreak, I felt alone with new ardor. I cut up carrots and peppers and onions, and I stirred a pot of black beans and dipped a spoon in and added salt and garlic and thyme. I filled the bath with water and bubble bath, and I lay in the scalding water with a screaming woman in the background. Die die die or I’m dying I’m dying I’m dying. I didn’t know Italian, but, sure, they were suffering. I thought about making love to a lion. I let my arms lift corpse-like to the water’s surface.
Besides sensuous disorders, I could buoy myself into the grace of selfhood with good conduct. Diligence in all things, in particular cleaning and eating and saving. The last time Our Friend had slept over, I hadn’t changed the pillowcase for a week—wafting maleness does something for the soul. But then I washed the sheets and just kicked into a really clean lifestyle. There’s a beauty that’s almost sexy about lining up the books on your bedstand so they all face the same direction, the small ones on top of the big ones, and so on. I ate cheaply: peanut butter and jelly or a plain bagel or a slice for lunch, penne with olive oil and broccoli for dinner. Self-inflicted virtue coursed through my veins. There’s an extravagance in spending twenty measly dollars on groceries for the week, and sending a check to your credit card company that hurts and hurts good, all through those long, pasta-eating weeks until the next little paycheck comes in to be spent instantly.
Was I having fun at the law firm where I worked as a secretary, or was I in misery? It was hard to tell—to wear pantyhose, as we know, is tight and encompassing, but was this containment coming to something? Day after day, week after week, counting numbers, budgeting, allocating. Knowing it’s wrong to think about having sex with your boss on his big desk when he is dictating. Knowing that. Knowing that the clauses pursuant to and heretofore can’t possibly mean anything prurient, can’t possibly be laden with ulterior meanings, posterior meanings. Knowing that the guy you’re having phone sex with is dumb, not your type when it really comes down to it, but it doesn’t really come down to it, not with him, anyway, only with your own hand in the privacy of your beautiful palace of East Village solitude, love nest for one.
I went to the opera a lot that winter—the unbudgeted item. I tiptoed up the red swirling staircase to the upper banks of the Metropolitan river of desire and consummation. I trailed my hand against the velvety red wall like a girl on her way to a baptism (a dunk in the waters of belonging) or a confession (a confession of love) or confirmation (confirmation of the passionate in a world of word-processing and subway tokens). I sat in my red seat and ate chocolate and watched and listened. The libretto was always satisfyingly melodramatic, and it seemed that often enough the women were dying of tuberculosis/a broken heart/insanity—and this seemed accurate to some great truth about the world. I always had the cheapest seats in the house, so I was basically in a tower, dizzy with vertigo, peering down at the action. There I was again—traipsing around in an evening gown. There was the scary witch mother in her black swirling cape, and there was the distant and square-shouldered father emperor. There was the prince I’d read about somewhere. There was the chance to prove, once and for all, your love, and there was the chance to make great sacrifices and, in the end, to be compensated, no, wait, to be murdered. Everything was over-the-top, but it made sense. The absurdity of the human condition—wasn’t that the point of the striped outfits and flailing and dwarves and backdrops? I put another square of chocolate on my tongue, and, at the end, I was wrung out and exhilarated.
Yes, solitude had its advantages. You could plunge headlong into tragedy. You could save money at Christmas. The set outcome of hard work, little sleep, and frugal budgeting could be the actual outcome of the week. I got up earlier and earlier, made happy by the work ethic of my novel, the stumble toward it, the dream of being a writer. Time became the thing I grabbed to my breast and clung to obsessively. After awhile, I had a boyfriend and he came over—but not until late, around ten, and he left at six in the morning, so basically we just had sleepovers, which was fine with me, since time was my real lover. I sat at my desk and wrote about France. Blanket over my knees, second cup of coffee brewing, sooty New York dawn brightening around me, it was as if I were in the other country.
There was a second novel idea lurking, and it had to do with snowy mountains and a lost woman. A Cold Place, I was going to call it, and maybe it was inevitable that I’d get what I wanted. I was offered a job that took me to the orange-fish heart of the avalanche mountain, and I took it.
The sky was blue and vast in Wyoming, and the birds sang in the trees but you couldn’t see them, and if you saw them, you had to wonder how long they were for the world because some people there shot them as pests—building nests and all that crap. In your driveway was a big snake. In your bed was a spider. It was all very intoxicating at first—time had spread out and become space too, so it was a double-lover thing, which was exciting, but also daunting. Who knew it would be too much, all this unallayed freedom and time to yourself? A sweet man with a sexy Led Zeppelin swing asked if he could live with you when you came back from your semester in France (a surprise invitation to a residency program), and you—in the kitchen of your trailer, pictures of your friends on the refrigerator, first time you’d ever taped up photographs, first time you’d needed that reminder—said to yourself two things at once: I “love” this man and he “loves” me—why not make it happen? Take a risk? Do something irresponsible for a change? And in a tinier voice: This time and space business is too big. Why not line up a bedmate for when I come back? Done.
France is always across the ocean, I wrote, on the Mediterranean. I was writing lovelorn letters to the Led Zeppelin character back home. I realized that I was never happy anywhere, and that was kind of amusing, or poetic anyway. Wasn’t it ironic that I was in France but what I longed for now—after a year of wishing I were in France—was to be back in LZ’s arms? In Cassis, I smiled heartily at the poste and patisserie as I made hash out of the simplest sentences, gesturing and jerry-building my thoughts to fit my vocabulary—then I retreated back to my apartment overlooking the sea. I wrote diligently, and in that was a kind of English-language call and response: someone—the semblance of someone—was listening. But, in general, I took loneliness to new heights altogether. This was a kind of suicidal loneliness—oh, no, not real suicide, just kidding, but a kind of Woolfian, blood in the ocean, razor in the bathtub, glass-of-wine alone-at-midnight-by-the-French-window thing. It was me and Remembrance of Things Past—solid companions for the blue nights. Topping things off atmospherically, I reread the first two books, adding a kind of timelessness to the timelessness of time.
I moved from place to place: by the window, at the desk, on the couch, on the bed—clearly my days had not just order, but activity. The loneliness, which had a keening, drowning lull, a call from Cerces, abated with the blast of sun against the sailboats in the bay, against my body, and the crisp enveloping waves of the sea, and the lemon tarts and olives and bread and coffee. But the nights. I borrowed a radio from an old, lonely man I’d met at the café, and my rooms rung with French pop, even that a relief from the extraordinary silence and the waves—beat, beat, beat—against my solitary vocabulary, my turned-in-on-itself language. Writing LZ had appeal, but it was also wretched, an intricate theater of the imagination, romantic but unreal. The here-and-now was trotting my body from station to station during the course of the everlasting days. And the here-and-now pastries, I can’t forget them, the lemon tarts by the lighthouse and the seagulls and the waves.
I returned to Wyoming and my new home with my new boyfriend who really I hardly knew at all. Risk? Did it matter? There I was, and because we actually had very little to say, I found myself spiraling back into the kind of aloneness I had known could happen in relationships, and which I didn’t want to happen again.
We went to the Busy Bee luncheonette for breakfast, just like I had when I first came to Wyoming and it had been fun then, local color. Now we were the local color, and Lonnie, queen of the flipped burger, didn’t take to my long-haired, earring-wearing, Doc Marten-shuffling boyfriend, and the greasy spoon experience lost its appeal. Our neighbor had a big garden, and she trapped cats and brought them to the pound if they so much as strolled by her pepper plants. The Chamber of Commerce had a coyote hunt with fox as tie-breakers and t-shirts for all the good folks who participated. I brooded and brooded, then wrote a letter to the editor—always a sure sign of feeling pathetic. At the copy shop, the Hallmark Catholic said, So, you’re a writer, half-handing me the copies she’d made of my poems about abortion, sex with women, etc.
Aloneness took on societal proportions that maybe kept me together with LZ that winter. I drove my blue 1977 Grand Safari station wagon eighteen miles to work, listened to the scratchy country music radio station, looked out at the ravishing snow hills and black cows in a line, at the blue sky that went on forever, waited for my favorite tree to appear on the horizon, and looked for deer and bald eagles and found them. And there, on the highway, the ranchers and I waved at each other—four fingers up from the steering wheel, no smile—and I felt like one of them, like I belonged.
Maybe it’s always true that you take your inner state and throw it at your surroundings. In any case, everywhere I looked, cows were being trooped off to the one-good-steel-rod-in-the-forehead house; raccoons and fox and deer and elk were being shot as vermin or predators or trophies or meals. Bumper stickers read Clinton Sucks and No Wolves and Wyoming Native and An Unborn Fetus Is God’s Child more than they read I Brake for Animals or I Brake for Hallucinations or Women Against Nuclear Power. In the 1994 state primary for U.S. Senator, the county reported 192 local Democratic votes and 2,128 Republican votes. Whenever LZ and I walked in the forest, we heard gunfire.
As per usual with displaced New Yorkers on the range, I wrote about my surroundings. I’d gone to Butte, Montana—city of desolation, a mining camp gone sour—and the destruction of the land was visceral there. The story that I’d begun in New York, as a kind of Audrey-Hepburn-meets-John-Wayne comedy of manners, intensified into a crystallization of all I’d found alienating about this new atmosphere. Then spring came. On my way to work, I saw black calves, stumbling in their first sleek morning, and lambs scattered like dropped sweaters on the newly green fields. It was warm enough to take to the skeet range. I couldn’t help thinking about the beginnings of things, the other side of the pact, and to forgive the land, the ranchers, and the whole nine yards of it for the death part of the equation. I broke up with my boyfriend, ready to take on Wyoming alone, now, after a stall of almost two years.
I moved to a geodesic dome house a mile from my office; it was on company land. I took an airplane ride because I was scared of small planes, and when we whirred and shook over my house, the scant shadow of our survival passed kite-like over an amazing amount of nothingness. My house and my neighbor’s house were the only buildings for miles, and the creek bed our lots clung to zigzagged like a fractured artery. It was appalling to see how little water was around—how little of anything. When I walked down the road, I only knew the nothingness I could see, not what was over the next hill. Nothing becomes something when you walk over it, when you see how long it takes to go from here to there, boot marks in the mud.
My new house was airy: high ceilings, corporate furniture, no boyfriend. I walked around like a guest. At first, happiness clung to me in a way that was almost indiscreet. I luxuriated in the space that had once seemed too much entirely. I spread my manuscript on the floor like a hopscotch game. I looked out the window at the flat-topped hill and the two horses in silhouette, at the deer like camouflaged puzzle-pieces on the tawny field, and the magpie in his tuxedo on the wire. No one else, but the sky could save me here.
That fall, I lit the woodstove and sat on the couch and wondered what it meant to have this moment alone, reading by firelight in a quiet house on a crisp night in November. What does experience mean if it is unshared; does it matter, does it exist at all? Aloneness resonated in the house in a way I’d never felt before. It was a little like death, but I tried not to think about it like that. I lay on the couch and looked out the picture window and listened to Lucia di Lammermoor. Clouds moved across the black sky, trailing toward, then over, then away from the half-moon. The universe was moving around me; I was in the arms of the night. There was no anxiety in the opera then, only the beauty of the voice.
While my boyfriend and I had kept a scoffer’s distance from the coyote/cowboy debate, the battle got closer. My neighbor shot cats, “but not ones with collars.” (Could anyone see Fluffy’s blue and white flea collar?) The man who owned my house and all the land around me shot birds by the dozens—he shot the red-winged blackbirds that graced barbed wire fences along the highway, he shot flickers that flew at you out of the grass and gave ventriloquist calls to keep you away from their young, he shot anything that hooted or squawked or tweeted at the wrong hour of the day, he shot birds because he could. He shot foxes and cats and skunks and prairie dogs, and once in a while, he went to exotic locations to shoot doves, pheasants, or whatever winged creature was indigenous by the hundreds. Once he shot his girlfriend’s cat off her porch—but that was a long time ago. His ethic regarding killing was clear—what do you expect from an oil baron? I sat in my house, his house, and wondered: But what am I doing here? Whose side am I on?
I tried a little killing. I stalked pheasants and shot one. I had antelope haunches in my freezer. I watched my cat bring in mice, chew their heads off, then go to town on the rest of them, leaving the livers and intestines in pungent piles. I changed a little: I was no longer against hunting wholesale. It seemed honest to kill what you ate instead of buying it wrapped in plastic at Safeway. If you hunted an animal, saw it alive, and killed it, you’d become aware of what it meant to be a carnivore. I realized that the allegiance some ranchers had to their animals wasn’t all about money—it was also an in-the-trenches experience with birth, illness, survival. Things weren’t black and white anymore. Even solitude, which I’d associated with soup and opera and frugality in New York, became less absolute. It wasn’t great; it wasn’t horrible. A fractured image came together, and I loosened my hold.
In a barn on the edge of the cattle field, across the way from a hill tipped with red rock, sat an old letterpress. On Sunday afternoons or in the whistling dark, I taught myself how to set type. There was nothing better than holding the metal frame in my hand and picking out an a or a t or an l from the drawer, then placing it next to the other letters in an upside-down row in my palm. When I finished a line, I started another, and when the lead pieces weighed heavy in my hand, I smoothed the stanza into a tray, wrapped it with string, and started the next one. I dotted the steel rollers of the press with rubber ink, and the black blotches stuck to the rollers and made a sucking sound when I rolled and rolled and rolled them around. The poem was in the tray, squeezed tight by wooden blocks and shims. Then the rollers swept over the poem. On a white page, the image of words. I touched the letters with my fingers; language merged with the physical world. Everything took hours, and I didn’t know I was alone.
Notes on first reading “The Orange-Fish Heart of the Avalanche”
It was the slush pile days, over-the-transom days, mailbox filled with envelopes packed with manuscripts (some smelling distinctly of cigarettes across the miles), SASEs with exotic stamps, and hope. I was the nonfiction editor at The Florida Review, back before my stint as editor.
We read through the stacks in coffee shops, dim offices, hallways, airports, and bus stops.
I remember the fear that so much reading would dim my senses, like getting tagged with too many cologne samples at the department store. The first one is distinct. The second one a little less so. Then they all blur together.
That was the minor anxiety of reading those stacks of manuscripts. Maybe my judgment would cloud over. Maybe I’d overlook something good.
The first line of the essay was heart-stopping: “I had a date with loneliness.” Even though I didn’t recognize it as a line from a pop hit of the early 1960s. The repetition in the first paragraph engaging, the relentlessness of loneliness enacted.
Everything was too good to overlook. So my second anxiety kicked in. Could this beautiful and original voice be sustained?
Page after page, the answer was yes. Beauty from despair. Insight from loneliness. A soaring worldview from isolation. The surprising turns of phrases continuing to surprise me.
Hilarious images: Opera as “a screaming woman in the background.” Virtue that is “self-inflicted.” New York City’s Metropolitan Opera as “the Metropolitan river of desire and despair.”
Heart-breaking images: “Time was my real lover.” Loneliness with a “keening, drowning lull.” The possibility that “you take your inner state and throw it at your surroundings.”
Terrifying realizations delivered—somehow—with a kind of acrobatic self-deprecating humor: “This was a kind of suicidal loneliness—oh, no, not real suicide, just kidding, but a kind of Woolfian, blood in the ocean, razor in the bathtub, glass-of-wine-alone-at-midnight-by-the-French-window thing.”
There is also action. Trips and boyfriends and relocation. Jobs and life in rural Wyoming.
Then, after some months in the new place, there’s a turn. The self-proclaimed New Yorker shakes off some of the focus on her despair and her self-described “displaced New Yorker” approach to Wyoming, something shifts in this narrator. Something small at first, but deep and compelling.
Every word in this vivid essay dazzles. No amount of cologne sampling or reading could dull a single sentence.
It’s one of the most original and heartbreaking and joyous essays I’ve ever published. And that I’ve ever read. Congratulations to The Florida Review for making it available once again.
David James Poissant Remembering Aurelie Sheehan
I was a student at the University of Arizona in 2005 when Aurelie Sheehan entered my life. She was my first graduate workshop leader, and she remains one of the best writing teachers I’ve ever known.
A single observation of hers made me the writer I am today. I was trying, at age twenty-six, to be a dark, gritty Southern writer. I distrusted earnestness, and my greatest fear was the label sentimental. I wrote vicious characters, and Aurelie quickly called me out on this (privately, after class). “You’re not a vicious guy,” she said. “You don’t have to lean so hard on cruelty.” I was writing against my own grain, exploring characters I didn’t understand. I told her I was afraid of sounding sentimental. “Then don’t be sentimental,” she said. “Risk sentimentality.” Different writers will interpret that advice different ways, but my mantra, in writing and in life, became just that: Risk sentimentality. It’s the first lesson I now teach my graduate students, and it’s a lesson they tend to hold dear when they leave the classroom.
Aurelie visited my class once, via Skype. My students had read the story collection Jewelry Box, and it was the class favorite of the semester. She was as kind and patient and generous with my students as she’d been with me, all those years before.
Sometimes, when we talk about teachers of writing, we forget that they are writers too. Aurelie was a tremendous teacher and mentor, but she was also a world-class writer. I’ve read her four story collections, and one of her two novels. They are beautiful lampposts lighting my way whenever I need examples of elegant craft and a gorgeous prose style. Knowing there may be no more books is heartbreaking. Knowing there is another novel, plus a Ploughshares Solos novella, brings me peace. I have at least two good reads on deck for dark days. I imagine that reading them will feel like hearing from an old friend.
I loved Aurelie the teacher and Aurelie the writer, but I’ll miss Aurelie the friend most. She was maybe the wisest person I’ve ever met, and she could make me laugh like no one else. The last time we talked, she spoke of a novel she’d written, or was writing, one set on a cruise ship, which remains a book I’d love to read. Short of that, it’s my great joy to bring you this uncollected essay from the archives, one written by a young writer just coming into her powers. The ending destroys me, but I love the portrait Aurelie leaves us with. Here is a person comforted by words. Here is a study in not being lonely while being alone.
At the risk of sounding sentimental, I’ll end with this: Aurelie is gone far too soon. The world is a worse place without her in it, but the world is a better place because of her words. I miss her terribly.
Jocelyn Bartkevicius studied literary fiction and nonfiction writing at The University of Iowa, nonfiction writing at the Bennington Writing Seminars, and completed a doctoral dissertation on the essays of Virginia Woolf. Her stories and essays have appeared in anthologies and such journals as The Iowa Review, The Missouri Review, The Bellingham Review, Fourth Genre, The Hudson Review, Gulf Coast, and TriQuarterly Online. She has won several teaching awards, and her essays have been awarded prizes from several literary journals. She is the former editor of The Florida Review. She teaches in the MFA Program in Creative Writing at the University of Central Florida.
David James Poissant is the author of the novel Lake Life, a New York Times Editors’ Choice selection, and the story collection The Heaven of Animals, a winner of the GLCA New Writers Award and a finalist for the L.A. Times Book Prize. His stories and essays have appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, The Chicago Tribune, The New York Times, One Story, Ploughshares, The Southern Review, and in anthologies including New Stories from the South, Best New American Voices, and Best American Experimental Writing. He teaches in the MFA Program in Creative Writing at the University of Central Florida and serves as Editor of The Florida Review.